For a company with a multilingual workforce, there can be the benefits of bridging the language gap. It was with this in mind that Shelton-based manufacturer, Lex Products Corp., with the aid of Housatonic Community College, established Shop Floor English, a customized Second Language course for its employees.
Even before the six-month course ended, the company, which has a largely Spanish-speaking work force, began to see the results it envisioned.
“It can be difficult when supervisors and the management team don’t speak the same language as the employees,” said Patty Donahue, director of operations. “When we transition to a new job, a member of the team who is bilingual has to stop the operation, get the workers together, and translate instructions about the next job into Spanish.”
This takes time out of production, she said.
“Instead of a 10-minute changeover, this cumbersome process can add 10 or 15 minutes to the changeover time,” Donahue said. “We realized that, if we could effectively address the language issue, we could mitigate the downtime.”
Likewise, she said, the company’s employee communications department has an added expense — translating all company communications, both written and verbal, into Spanish.
“To reach our Spanish-speaking employees, we publish everything that goes out in English and Spanish,” Donahue said. “We have company meetings and “town hall meetings” every month. We need a translator for all of these.”
Perhaps most important is the loss of opportunities for workforce development.
“We at Lex Products take pride in helping employees develop their talent, and language barriers make this task more difficult,” she said. “People who would ordinarily share ideas and suggestions for improvement in their own language are often hesitant to do this in a language with which they’re unfamiliar. But, when they’re able to speak the same language as management, they just shine.”
Earlier this year, Lex Products, which makes cable assemblies and power distribution boxes for military, industrial and entertainment applications, decided to address the issue head on. It called upon Housatonic Community College’s new business consulting service, the Strategic Solutions Group, to develop a Shop Floor English course as a Second Language program.
Strategic Solutions Group
A chance meeting with Joseph Jenecaro, an organizational consultant with Housatonic’s Strategic Solutions Group, gave Lex Products the opportunity to address the question, “What if? What if we could help our employees bridge the language gap?”
Launched in September, SSG offers both workplace needs assessment and customized training designed to meet organizational needs. SSG organizational consultants visit with prospects in their offices, and will schedule training programs at their facilities or other places of their choosing.
“The key feature of this service is needs diagnosis,” said Ed Becker, acting dean of community outreach. “Our organizational consultants will meet first with prospective clients to learn as much as possible about their operations and the workforce challenges they face. Then, the consultants will develop an appropriate, customized response to address a client’s unique employee development needs.”
SSG offers its basic diagnostic services at no charge, Becker said, and will help to identify any sources of supplementary funds that can be used to implement its recommendations. Training services are provided on a competitive fee-for-service basis.
“I sat down with company representatives to discuss their needs,” Jenecaro said. “Based on this, we developed a proposal for a training program customized for the company’s workforce, environment, tools and products. Lex Products’ management team liked the proposal, so we developed the Shop Floor English course as a Second Language program for them.”
Once Housatonic developed a program to meet the company’s needs, Jenecaro determined where he might find funds to help them defray the cost.
“The Department of Labor had grant money available for companies to develop employees, so I worked with Lex Products to help secure such a grant.” Jenecaro said.
The result was a six-month Shop Floor ESL course that began in January and wrapped up in July. The course included 80 hours in the classroom and 18 in labs. Lex Products was impressed by the course.
“We needed a shop floor class that was specific to Lex Products’ needs,” said Dawn Tuthill, director of human resources. “Housatonic came in, took photos of our departments and the tools we use, and reviewed our safety policies and forms so they could incorporate them into the curriculum. The textbook HCC developed was great. It was tailored to our needs.”
Lex is pleased with the qualitative signs of the program’s success.
“There are two workers who really wanted this,” Donahue said. “One of them always stops to talk to me to practice. He was a little shy at first, afraid to try to communicate with us. Now, he stops me and starts a conversation. I’ve seen this in a few individuals.”
“Learning English is essential for our Spanish speaking employees. Communicating in a common language will no doubt unlock the potential of these employees,” said Mike Scala, Lex Products’ president. “They no longer need a translator to share their ideas on how to improve the business, nor one to receive valuable information on company performance, which we share each month.”
The students are pleased with the course.
“The course has helped me on the job because I understand more words, it’s easier to speak with my supervisors,” Saudi Pinto said.
Colleague Felipe Sam Ixuna agrees. “It’s easier to do the job because I know more words,” he said.
Fellow worker Marvin Lima offers a similar sentiment. “It helps me because a lot of people speak English all the time,” he said.
Lima mentioned that it helps him off the job as well. “Now, when I go to the hospital, I can speak English. That helps my family.”